Essay

Pig-headed in Hog Country

By July 19, 2019 19 Comments
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Let me tell you a story:

Fifteen years ago, I was in line at a grocery store, behind two Hispanic men checking out. The clerk—a high school girl—got frustrated because her customers had trouble with the English language. That she was annoyed was obvious.

When those two Hispanic men walked away, she muttered something to us—the white folks back in line—words spoken loud enough for us to hear. “Learn the language,” she growled. And then she said something like this: “When you come here to our country, learn the language or go home!”

I would have liked to tell her that 180 years ago, there were Native Americans all around here who gave Iowa its name but now live in Kansas and Oklahoma because we thought their land was ours for the taking.

We have a history of prejudice.

Proclamation of Iowa Governor William Harding ordering that any public conversation or oration be conducted exclusively in the English language. May 23, 1918. Also known as the “Babel Proclamation”.

I would have liked to tell her that on Armistice Day, 1918, an angry mob made Rev. John Reichardt stand on a coffin and kiss the flag, while a band from a nearby town played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On the coffin was written “The Kaiser—now ruler of Hell.” When the show was over, Rev. Reichardt was ordered out of town. His crime was using the German language in German-speaking Zion Evangelical Reformed Church of Lowden, Iowa. Because he spoke German, he was a criminal.

Iowans have a history of prejudice, even an old state law, “the Babel Proclamation,” once in place, now nullified. We once made prejudice an institution of government.

I would have liked to tell that grocery store clerk that, just about the same time as the Babel Proclamation, real Iowa-born terrorists planted a bomb beneath a Reformed Church parsonage, and actually burned down the New Sharon Reformed Church and the Peoria Christian School. Those bombers were too hate-filled and pig-headed to know the difference between Dutch and Deutsch.

I would have liked to tell that young lady that we all have a history of prejudice.

I would have liked to say that almost assuredly, her grandparents or great-grandparents needed help shopping in LeMars or Rock Rapids, wherever they’d go, because they didn’t know the English language. And that as late as the 1950’s, men and women on the streets of Orange City or Sioux Center still used Dutch, a half century or more after the immigration from the Netherlands stopped for the First World War.

I would have liked to tell her all of that, but I didn’t. However, I did write up that story and sent it to the Sioux Center News because I wanted to remind all of us that we certainly do have a history of prejudice.

But my grocery store story doesn’t end there. There is one more chapter.

The morning after letter to the editor showed up, the manager of one of the town’s stores called me. It was early, eight in the morning. She identified herself, someone I knew from church. Then she said, “Jim, I need to know who that check-out was. I have to know.”

I told her the clerk wasn’t an employee of her store. She wasn’t.

Still, to me that early morning response was a blessing.

I couldn’t help remember that story this week because bigotry needs to be confronted and condemned, whether the perp is a high school grocery clerk or the President of the United States.

We have a history of prejudice, a history we’ve created and suffered; but like that grocery store manager, we don’t have to tolerate it. We can fight it. We can call it ugly, call it wrong, and call it sin.

Because it is.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

19 Comments

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Thank you!

  • Dale Cooper says:

    O Lord, have mercy. For I am “ not to belittle,insult, hate, or to kill my neighbor by my thoughts, my words, my looks, my actions…In Your sight all such actions are murder.” (Heidelberg Catechism #105-107)

    Dale Cooper

  • Jim Brink says:

    Jim, thank you for calling out our sin, my sin, and thank goodness we have a patient and merciful God.

  • mstair says:

    “… bigotry needs to be confronted and condemned …”
    “ … call it ugly, call it wrong, and call it sin…”

    Confronting and condemning, that sounds ugly and hateful. If only we knew what Jesus wrote on the ground in John, chapter 8 … then maybe we could still make our point, doing it in love …

    • I believe the author did point it out in love. We forget the uglier chapters and stories of our country at our peril, destined to continue in the wrongdoing, er, sin. How are we to be reminded more lovingly? Is it more loving to stay quiet?

      Instead, why not consider this a rather gentle example of what may be meant by “the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children” – a phrase that has always disturbed me.

      I am grateful for the graceful, poignant way this story was told. It illustrates my utter disquiet whenever I read or hear the phrase “This is not who we are.”

      Sadly, it is who we are because we have oftentimes been.

      Lord have mercy

  • Rev. David J Jones says:

    Thank you for this article. A true blessing at a time when it is much needed.

  • Carol Van Klompenburg says:

    Thanks for the story, Jim. A good reminder to check our hearts.
    One additional thought: Perhaps there is also a secondary ignorance underlying a “Learn the language” comment. Many people who say those words have not tried the slogging hard work of learning a second language and don’t realize the complexity of that process. My husband and I have been studying Spanish for the past decade, and we are still at the toddler level.

  • RH “Bear” Berends says:

    Not until the CRC-NA or the RCA publicly and institutionally through their respective Synods condemn Donald J Trump as a racist will those particular denominations be held in suspect of motivation for not doing so. Wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say to us 21st century Reformed folks? – Ha!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Many who come to our country out of need lack the opportunity to learn the new language.
    They need to work all day to save money to send back to those they left behind in poverty.
    They often work with others who speak their language too.
    There’s no time for language classes, even if they should be available.
    Their lives carry the burden of hard work in a foreign land for low pay, loneliness, and prejudice.
    They’re our neighbors Jesus asked us to love.

  • KEN BOONSTRA says:

    Just had a conversation with a guy who will be attending Calvin Seminary in the fall. Grew up on dairy farms where the workers were primarily Hispanic and not a one spoke English. We wondered with him if he was fluent in Spanish. He replied that he wasn’t, mostly because there are many different dialects and accents. However, he never tried to get them to speak English, he said that if he was going to work with them he’d better work at communicating with them in their language. I was struck by his humble attitude toward others and what it called him to be. I suspect that man will make a great pastor someday.

  • Agnes Ward says:

    Let us all take a deep breath. Our country has very slowly evolved as Our Lord has helped us to see his way. Once found we may chose to walk, learn and love. Nothing happened over night. Now we see the world in a new light. This light will continue to guide us. Many old ways need attention. Many need new insight as the Lord guides us. It is a progress. We are becoming all the Lord seeks us to be. Be patient and trust in God.

  • Phyllis Palsma says:

    Thank you for this. It brings back the memory of my grandfather telling the story of arson on his brother-in-law’s farm around the time of the New Sharon/Peoria terrorism. He had just come in from finishing evening chores, taken off his shoes, looked out the kitchen window and saw his barn was on fire. Seems some folk around New Sharon thought my Dutch great-uncle was Deutsch.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Trump is resisting(!) the ‘do as I say or you’re the devil’ approach to politics espoused by ‘The Squad’. Trump is no grocery clerk (let alone an arsonist) – he’s defending people like me against a pack of racist, proto-communist, cry-bully lunatics. The fact that the job is left to him is a tragedy, but it is what it is. There is a deficit of wisdom and courage today, and so we get Trump. The rocks will cry out next.

    Now Trump is also a politician, which means he’s a cold-calculating schemer. And so his defense is also intended to marry the entire Democratic Party to ‘The Squad’ – because if anyone around here would pay five seconds of attention to what they’re all about you’d see that they’re insane. (Some have suggested that ‘The Squad’ is short for Circular Firing Squad). But nobody here will because Orange Man Bad.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    I am both amazed and humbled by my SouthWest Chicago suburban students, coming from Palestine/Jordan/Syria/Iraq/Yemen, who have managed collegiate levels of fluency in English, adjusting not only to sounds and vocabulary of a new language, but to a whole new alphabet and syntactical-directional order of writing. They always apologize for their poor writing, to which I respond, “your English is 1,000 times better than my Arabic.” Every one is surprised and pleased that I am planning to take the college’s series of online courses; every one promises to tutor me in Arabic. I guess I will learn the language with such opportunity and support.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Once again, a big thank you.

  • Willa Brown says:

    Thank you, Jim, for this reminder of the prejudice in Iowa which is also in every other state in the U. S. How sad that we can’t appreciate our differences. I took some Spanish courses at Central College and even today, when I hear Hispanics speaking Spanish, I try to figure out what they are saying and I think how blessed they are to know more than one language.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Thank you, Jim.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Could you please re-post my comment? I believe it was mistakenly taken down.

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